The Joys and Dangers of Exploring Africa on the Back of an Elephant

Renowned travel writer Paul Theroux journeys through Botswana’s spectacular, wildlife-rich wetlands

At remote Abu Camp, visitors can hitch a ride into one of the great water holes of Africa. (Sergio Pitamitz / Biosphoto / Minden Pictures)
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After miles of gravel and some upright spinning funnels of dust devils and the light brown scrub of the bush, and the immensity of woodland and camel thorns—after all that thirst, the Okavango Delta is unexpectedly drenched, as the desert deliquesces into a watery mirage, a deep green marvel that bubbles up and sprawls over the left shoulder of Botswana as a succession of swamps. Most river deltas occur at the edge of a landmass, widening and dumping soil and water, enlarging the shore, pouring the current into a body of water. The Okavango is unusual in being landlocked; the stream of the river, fed by numerous watercourses draining from a catchment area in the planalto of Angola, the wooded highlands of the far north, becomes a delta hundreds of miles wide. This river—lush and sodden and silted—empties all its flow into the middle of the Kalahari Desert. The precise and pretty name for this natural wonder of watery interstices and spreading rivulets is an alluvial fan.

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The result of the sprawling torrent of water are channels and flood zones and lagoons and islands of palms, and water so clean from percolating through the papyrus beds that it is drinkable. Also present are seasonal swamps, and wide trenches called fossil rivers that once carried water, and ephemeral rivers, and permanent rivers: It is a water world. This fertile deep green habitat for animals and birds and flowers, one of the glories of Africa, is without traditional villages—the Tswana people live almost entirely on the perimeter, entering the delta only to fish or hunt.

In Africa, animals—large and small—are found at water holes. The Okavango Delta, teeming with wildlife, and still pristine, is one of the great water holes of the continent.

In a channel of the Okavango Delta there was a luxury camp for visitors to ride elephants across the mushy ground, and through the tall grass and the swamps, to look at birds and big animals. Few others in Africa rode elephants. At Abu Camp (“Meet your inner elephant”) all they rode were elephants. The camp advertised itself as a “unique opportunity to bond with elephants firsthand,” and went on, “Situated in a vast private reserve of 400,000 acres, guests interact with the resident elephant herd, whether riding or walking with them through the bush. The ultimate elephant education safari!”

The camp had originally been conceived in the late 1980s as a refuge for “rescue elephants”—elephants that had survived a cull, or had been orphaned in the wild as a result of the mother being killed, or had suffered the torments and teasing of a circus, or been confined in a zoo or a wildlife park. This elephant rescue scheme was the idea of Randall Moore, an American who had begun his working life shoveling great crumbly muffins of elephant dung at an animal-training school in Oregon. By an odd set of circumstances he had come to possess three elephants. It happened this way. A pair of animal trainers, a man and woman who were his mentors at the school, were killed separately, but in quick succession, a consequence of the bull elephants in musth—a condition of high-testosterone aggression. The woman was gored and transfixed by the tusks of an enraged elephant—this occurred during a circus act before a large crowd of horrified Québécois in a small Canadian town. Later, in Oregon, the man was stomped to death by his favorite elephant.

Since he was on the payroll and knew the ropes, Moore inherited the elephants, which—stigmatized and vilified as “killer elephants”—he resolved to save by relocating them to Africa, as he describes in his book Back to Africa. Failing to find a home for them in Kenya (red tape, obstinate officialdom, bush confusion), he was welcomed in Botswana, where, as a wildlife entrepreneur, he started a training program for rescue elephants and pioneered his unusual safaris. The idea for elephant-back safaris was initially that of photographer, socialite and Africa hand Peter Beard, who suggested to Moore in the 1980s that riding elephants through the African bush was unprecedented and would be an incomparable safari.

Abu—“Father” in Arabic—was one of the earliest elephants, brought from a wildlife park in Texas, repatriated to Africa and, as the star of the camp and a natural performer, had appeared in several feature films before his death. Other elephants—enough to create a substantial herd—were added over the years, from distant parts of Africa and as far afield as Canada and Sri Lanka. They had names and pedigrees, they had distinct profiles and personalities; some were quite old, others were babies, either born at the camp within the motley herd or recently orphaned. They were attended to and trained by a large team of mahouts—they used this Hindi term for elephant whisperer—mainly African, each one bonded to a particular elephant.

The appeal of Abu Camp was its remoteness in the delta, the uniqueness of an elephant-back safari and the luxury of its accommodations. One of the boasts of the camp was that the purring refrigeration of its extensive wine cellar was inaudible outside the kitchen compound. It was also eco-friendly, depending on solar panels for electricity and for reducing all its kitchen waste into compost to fertilize its extensive vegetable gardens. The staff quarters amounted to a small, rather prim village, with its own dining hall and recreation room—nearly all the workers had permanent homes in Maun, the Okavango’s main town and only substantial airport, at the southeastern edge of the delta. Most guests were flown from Maun to bush airstrips in small planes over startled herds of zebra and wildebeest.

There were only six tents, but “tents” gives a mistaken impression—they were more like canvas bungalows on high platforms; they had showers and tubs and double beds with mosquito nets like wedding veils, and at the edge of the lagoon it was possible to prop yourself up on one elbow in a big soft bed and watch the resident herd of hippos gasping and spewing in the water below.

Michael Lorentz, who ran Abu, was my friend. He called himself a safari guide but he was the moving force behind a reconceived and upgraded Abu, and he was a great lover of the wild, with a particular affection for elephants. I had met him ten years before in Johannesburg, at the end of my Dark Star Safari trip, and we had kept in touch. His fortunes had risen in that decade; he had become an entrepreneur, with his own high-end safari company. He was now married, his wife an academic, and they had two small boys. He was obviously prospering in a competitive business—he still conducted safaris of his own all over the wilds of South Africa and Botswana, as well as Zambia, Kenya and Ethiopia.


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